Deborah Pintonelli -- excerpt from Some Heart
The espresso machine spat out frantic jolts of steam in an effort to do its job. It would be James’ fourth cup. His route in the loft for the last five hours, from about 3 a.m., had been from the desk by the windows to the kitchen and back, a total of about twenty feet. To go to the toilet he had to add another twenty, which was tiring, so he held it as long as he could. He had spent inordinate amounts of time looking at porn on the internet and entering and exiting various chat rooms, where he could make up an identity and then leave it behind just like that.
He could hear the kids in the tap class that met once a week upstairs clomping and clattering in the hall. He went over to the peephole to observe the last of the little girls, one that had been waiting downstairs for almost ten minutes before being let in, as she went up in skinny black leggings. He heard the music the teacher was using: Ray Charles singing Hit the Road, Jack. He heard her tell them, Okay, girls, one more time. He imagined all twenty girls in similar black outfits dancing on the wood floors above, and felt less lonely for a moment.
He had not seen anyone, had not left the building, for almost a week. Lou was in and out, gone for days, and then back for one or two. He kept the television on constantly, the sound muted or not, and if he wasn’t at his desk he’d lie in bed staring at the figures on the screen as if they were people he’d known for a long time, people who cared about him. People he might actually love.
Last night there had been a long telephone conversation with Robin, the first in weeks. She had basically refused to talk to him since they had last seen one another. Was that about a month ago? He didn’t know. He was losing track of many things; time, mainly.
Anyway, this was what he thought had been said. If he had in fact talked to her.
I think I’m losing my mind. I can’t stand to go out of the door during the day anymore. I see things that aren’t there. I hear my mother talking to me, saying absurd things. I get angry for no reason. The other day I took a hammer to the dishwasher and beat it until the cover caved in. I cry. I wet the bed last night. Sometimes I shit in it too. I dream about people I don’t know. I’m afraid of everything. I want you to come and take care of me, Robin. I want you to live here. I don’t want to be alone anymore.
Robin said no. She said that he sounded worse not better. She said that they did not love one another, and so it was pointless to continue. James just ignored this talk and cut right to the point.
So, what about it?
I said no. No. I can’t disrupt my life like that. Why don’t you ask Lou? I know you’ve been seeing her again.
That’s bullshit! Who told you that?
I just know.
You’re out of your mind, Robin.
Come on, why would I do that? Why would I jeopardize myself? He could see himself in the mirror as he was talking. He tried to smooth back the wild, filthy tendrils emanating from his head like biblical snakes. Worst of all, he could smell himself.
For a moment he snapped out of whatever he had been locked into and it frightened him. He hated the way he looked, the conversation he was having, all of it. Who the fuck needed women anyway? They were only trouble. They wanted things. His time, his money.
I gotta go, Robin. We will talk about this later.
He slammed the phone down and began to weep. He wept as if he’d never had anything in his life; no wealthy parents and a loving, albeit weird sister, no fancy education and all of the stuff that came before because he’d been such a fucking genius but was now, and possibly forever, a tragically flawed loser. What was wrong with him? Maybe a tumor or some other disease? Did people still get syphilis? He looked it up in Webster’s:
Syph·i·lis n. a serious sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirally twisted bacterium Treponema pallidum that affects many body organs and parts, including the genitals, brain, skin, and nervous tissue. Also called lues.
That could be it! He ran to the phone and dialed Dr. Bloomberg’s private line.
Doc! I know what’s wrong with me.
James, did you call Dr. Spencer? Did she agree to see you?
But I don’t need a shrink! I have syphilis. It’s obvious.
Dr. Bloomberg sighed. And how is it obvious, James?
I’m going crazy for no particular reason, and I itch all over, and my dick doesn’t work properly anymore.
I was just about to leave the office. Can you come and see me tomorrow at ten?
Fine. But I’m telling you I know what the problem is.
Okay then. Make the appointment with reception. I’ll see you in the morning.
James had to bathe himself. The path from the desk to the tub was riddled with potholes of fear. It was a long way there, and he didn’t think he could make it without hurting himself. His hands shook, and each step was torture. He sat down on the floor by the desk. The weakness, the getting up and then the bones going all soft, the movement arrested, stopped. None of it was unfamiliar, but it was all happening too often, too intensely.
Dr. Bloomberg was a friend of the family. James could tell that the man was fed up, treating him only as a favor to his father. Howard knew everyone. People at the Art Institute, the MCA, the Three Arts Club, the Board of Trade, chefs, doctors, lawyers, you name it. Bloomberg was all right, though. Not a bad guy. Had been trying to tell James for over a year that a nervous breakdown might be imminent. How could something like that be imminent, like bad weather? James thought you either had one or you didn’t.
James knew things were not right. He knew he did not have a sexually transmitted disease. Nor did he believe he was about to have a nervous breakdown. It was something else, something that no one wanted to talk about. Every episode, violent fit, public scene, drug-induced illness or hospitalization had been treated by his whole family as if it were the only one. No one as brilliant and as beautiful as James could be damaged in any way; it was a dream that they had to hold on to, no matter what the cost.
The anger. The rages. They were getting more frequent, impossible to ignore. In the last few weeks he’d tried to sort things out for himself but it only made him feel more depressed, hopeless. Why had he gone on about syphilis to Dr. Bloomberg? It was idiotic. This was what he really had, based on an old diagnosis by his high school counselor, who had given him a book called The Diagnostic Interview for Borderlines by Gunderson and Kolb.
The list of symptoms included provocative terms like yearning and entitlement. Fleurs du Mal. Sexual deviance. The poet’s disease, but alas, no poetry, just the ugly death’s head of depression, aging and rotting him. James, a voice inside, not Ann’s, said, James, you are a worthless piece of shit. And other voices, all around him, whispering about what he Used To Be. James didn’t want to hear any of that, though. He wanted a remedy, and he wanted it now. He wrapped a bed sheet around his naked body and went out to look for it. It was nine p.m..
The next morning James was feeling much better. This, despite the fact that he was in some sort of hospital waiting for someone to come rescue him. Something about the night’s activities had invigorated him. He had worn a sheet like a loin cloth and proclaimed himself to be God’s only son. In the middle of Lincoln Square. Near the upscale pastry shop named Café Selmarie, where patrons sat trysting over a perfect piece of tarte tatin. It made him smile to think that he could make so bold a gesture, and that he possibly looked good doing so.
He did not remember, or was confused about the fact, that by then he’d suffered a contusion to the forehead, actually a mild concussion, from tripping over a bench leg in the little plaza with the fountain that was adjacent to the café. Or that he had been sobbing as he proclaimed himself to the distraught patrons. He barely remembered tussling with the officers of the law, and had blacked out as soon as they had secured him in the back seat of the patrol car. Whatever happened directly afterward was less than a blur.
What he did know was this: that after a simple adjustment of the aforementioned loin cloth he felt a powerful sense of himself surge through him. He was one with the night, the stars, the shining neon shop signs, and the glistening metal skins of the cars moving down Lincoln Avenue. They were all part of a world of his making, and would (and did) disappear if he so desired.
When everything disappeared, the night took on a tunnel-like appearance and his peripheral vision was gone. He knew that there were buildings and people around him, but he couldn’t really see them, only vague outlines and colors and light. It was a powerful feeling, this other reality. It had even altered the language of his private thoughts; it had turned one did this to I do that. It said, You are golden, perfect, charmed.
Unless of course he thought as he was doing now, that it was something other than fantastic to be running around half nude making outrageous statements to strangers. But that was not how he’d felt at the time, and even now believed that it was more a problem of translation: He had not meant to say that he was indeed Jesus Christ.
What he meant was that he was feeling most Christ-like, that the sSirit was within him. That he in fact did not even believe in God, but rather in the idea of Him, and all that was good about it. He had only referenced that particular historical figure because he thought it would be easier for people to understand where he was coming from.
Half-dressed and shivering, he’d felt something new coursing through him. Like speed, coke, caffeine, all mixed up together and shot into his veins with a magical needle. And when he banged up against something as he took to running at an incredibly fast pace, this otherworldly elixir had stopped him from feeling pain or falling too often.
He had in fact felt lifted up by a sense of connection to the air, the night sky, the people milling about. It must have been what this person called Jesus of Nazareth had felt, so long ago. That was all James had meant! Of course he’d known who he was. Sort of. When the cops busted him he’d gotten belligerent, said that they were spoiling his party. That’s when he pretended not to know his own name. Or at least that was how he had parsed it out for himself.
The feeling of liquid fire in him was not conducive to calming down. It wanted him to keep running, preaching, smiling at strangers, giving away his clothes and shoes. It wanted to strip him down to the bone and reveal exactly who the real James Samuels was. It was both strange and wonderful, a distraction from the boredom and hopelessness of his current life. It didn’t provide a sense of hope, it was hope itself, a shiny, druggy feeling of wonder and dumbstruck awe that he still had it in him to dream, to feel something.
Which was why he was feeling better.
But things had gotten out of hand, hadn’t they? It was not his intention. Now he had a swollen face and a black eye, and was appalled to have hurt himself, and to have been hurt by the two policemen. When the young E.R. doctor had forced him to look into a mirror his face was a puffy, pulpy mess that he would not be able to shave or wash properly for at least a week. Worse, he had accumulated a series of tickets for indecent exposure and disturbing the peace, all of which carried heavy fines that would have to be paid by his father.
James did want to know what was wrong with him, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to be cured. Cured was what was done to a ham, or bacon. He wanted the draining of the blood, the application of leeches, cupping. Maybe some hot stones. These seemed to be things that might help.
As soon as the word leeches popped into his head he saw them, a dark, moving mass of them, heading across the floor to the cot where he was resting. Their opaque, root beer color belied a certain transparency, as if their outer edges were tinged with an inner light. Some light green striping showed itself on some of them.
He’d been lying there for about two hours, although it seemed like merely minutes. That was it! His brain was operating on a whole new plane, and whatever he visualized came to pass. It was awesome but also frightening to watch the slow progression of the dark, slippery bodies inching towards him. When they got to him they would begin their work, but would not hurt him.
What would Ann think at this particular juncture? He desperately wanted to know, but had not been able to conjure her for days. He would have to wait. There seemed to be a rather regular pattern of symptoms and her appearance did not coincide with this particular type of episode. She did not involve herself in violence of any kind. As far as James could tell it went like this:
Hallucination-agitation followed by depression-listlessness/catatonia-voices and other aural hallucinations; further agitation and violent or aggressive actions followed by lucidity/calm/near docility, as he was right then, a meek little lamb, weepy, wanting comfort. Also all drugged up. Some progressive compound to render him malleable had been pumped into his veins. S’ok. He liked drugs.
He would have to wait and be calm, stop seeing leeches, sleep, and then the whole cycle would start over again. Then Ann would appear.
James was, specifically, at Cook County Hospital, in the Psychiatric Ward. One of the staff called Lara at about midnight. James had given them two numbers, hers and Howard’s. We sedated him but he’s still struggling, the woman told Lara. Seeing things.
Cook County was a huge monolith that looked like a state prison. The patient’s rooms were a series of cells along poorly lit halls. There were no friendly, bustling nurses’ stations staffed with cheerful women wearing blue and white cotton pajamas printed with bears or bunnies, just a security guard placed here and there amidst the abandoned gurneys and wheelchairs.
Lara walked past room after room of old people asleep with their mouths gaping open, cribs with children crying in them, their parents talking on cell phones, then a whole series of empty rooms. The further she walked the more desolate things became. Through double doors and up three steps she went, into a place with the muffled sounds of people moaning and talking to themselves.
A big guard with a gun and a badge stood near the door that separated the waiting room from the emergency treatment rooms where James was supposed to be. The guard had Lara sign her name and told her to go into the first room. James was lying there on a gurney, naked under a sheet, his arms and legs in leather restraints attached to iron clasps at each corner of the table.
He looked like a badly drawn version of himself. He had obviously been beaten with a nightstick and more. His face was bruised and bleeding, with scratch marks on the cheeks and a dark red line across his throat. His eyes were almost swollen shut. His hair was thick and crusty with dirt and dried blood. Lara put her hand to the stiff mass of his hair and stroked upwards. It soothed him; he shut the small slits of his eyelids for a moment and then opened them again. He smiled with cracked lips, revealing a chipped tooth.
You gave them my number. You must have needed me.
I did. The police hurt me. They didn’t like the things I was saying to them.
He tried to raise his arm to touch her but couldn’t. He lifted his head up and looked at his hands and feet sadly, as if they belonged to someone else and he was sorry for that person. When the ER doc came in James asked him what was happening. The doc looked bored and disgusted with both of them, though that didn’t stop him from letting his eyes linger for a moment on Lara’s breasts.
Restraints. I told you about them already. I explained when I was giving you the Demerol. You might remember that you tried to hammer two paramedics? That they had to call the cops? You were completely naked by then, having lost your loincloth, and foaming at the mouth. I mean literally. And babbling something about being Jesus Christ come back to heal the world. The cops had to convince you to get into the ambulance. Apparently it wasn’t an easy job. It’s all in their report. He patted a thick stack of papers in his clipboard. You’re lucky they didn’t take you to the station.
James squeezed his eyes shut and a few tears leaked out. He smelled rancid and medicinal, as if he had been dipped in ammonia. Lara was appalled. Foaming at the mouth? Was this supposed to be professional lingo?
Can’t you leave us alone?
I’m in charge, you don’t tell me what to do, he said, smiling.
Lara stiffened and lowered her voice. I’ll say that you hit on me, okay? I’ll complain until they get sick of hearing my voice and blame it on you. They’ll start wondering why they put a pervert with no balls in charge.
He shrugged, and rolled his eyes as if he had way more important things to do. He checked a few more things and then left without saying anything else.
Jane came in right after that later wearing pajama bottoms and sweatshirt. She wore no make-up, and on her head was a Cubs baseball cap. Her eyes were red and bleary-looking. She was clutching a black nylon bag. It was two in the morning now.
You been here long?
Jane addressed Lara without knowing exactly who she was. One of the other girls James went with, she surmised.
Lara noticed that Jane’s breath smelled stale.
No. Only a few minutes.
I can’t believe they brought him to this place!
They had no choice—he had no wallet, no ID or insurance card.
They said they couldn’t get him to calm down for a long time. But I don’t know. Look at his face! How could one skinny guy take on two paramedics and two cops?
Is that what they said? I need to talk to someone.
That’s all I was told.
I’ll try to get a copy of the police report. Howard’s waiting for me to let him know what’s going on.
Lara did not ask why Howard hadn’t come himself.
Two hours later they finally had James safely in the car, dressed in jeans and long-sleeved black t-shirt. Jane drove, and Lara sat in back with James. He had his head on her lap, and his soft snores were the only sounds inside the car. It was Sunday morning, and they were going east toward the lake, trying to get back to the civilized world. Jane suggested they all go back to the house to try to make sense of things.